Evangelists & Pillars of Faith
St. John -
The eagle is St. John’s symbol, an inspirational motif for the soaring majesty of his Gospel. In the very first lines of his Gospel, he soars up to the contemplation of the eternal generation of the Word. The same inimitable spirit of charity reigns throughout all his writings.
As he bears the title “Theologian,” he loftily expounded in his Gospel the theology of the inexpressible and eternal birth of the Son and Word of the Father. For this reason, an eagle – a symbol of the gift of the Holy Spirit, as St. Irenaeus explains, is depicted in his icon, for this was one of the four symbolic living creatures that the prophet Ezekiel saw (Ez. 1:10).
“John, then the last (of the Evangelists),” says St. Clement of Alexandria, “seeing that the bodily features had been brought to light in the Gospel, and being urged by the disciples and divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel.”
He wrote three epistles. His first is addressed to all Christians, especially his converts, whom he urges to purity and holiness of life and cautions against crafty seducers. Another one was directed to a local church while the third, to Gaius, a covetous entertainer of Christians.
St. Luke -
St. Luke was an Antiochian by birth, a physician by trade, an artist by avocation, and a disciple and companion of St. Paul by conversion. He was unmarried and included among the seventy disciples. Together with St. Cleopas, he saw the risen Lord on the road to Emmaus (Lk. 24). He ended his life in martyrdom, according to St. Gregory the Theologian.
His emblem is the calf, the third symbolic beast mentioned by Ezekiel (1:10), which is a symbol of Christ’s sacrificial and priestly office, as St. Irenaeus says. His Gospel begins with the priestly service of Zachariah. He was the only non-Jew among the Evangelists. He wrote his Gospel in Greek and then wrote the Acts of the Apostles. He dedicated both works to Theophilus, who was the governor of Achaia.
His eyewitness Gospel emphasizes the universality of Christ’s message, that salvation belongs to all nations. Illustrating this point, his is the only Gospel to tell the story of the “Good Samaritan”. Likewise, he is the only one to record Christ’s ascension into heaven as he reveals His Divine nature – fully God, yet fully Man. His Gospel is also the only one to give a full account of the Annunciation to the blessed Virgin, her visit to Elizabeth and her journeys to Jerusalem.
According to tradition, he depicted the form of the most-holy Virgin, carrying the Pre-Eternal Infant, our Lord Jesus Christ, in her arms. After that, St. Luke painted the images of the holy apostles, Ss. Peter and Paul. He is therefore regarded as the founder of Christian iconography.
In the icon, he is depicted with an ox next to him, a symbol of Christ’s priestly office. St. Luke’s expression displays wonderful attention to the voice of the Holy Spirit in his heart.
St. Mark -
St. Mark was a Gentile from Cyrene of Pentapolis, which is near Libya. It was in his house (in the Upper room) where the Passover was held and where the disciples used to assemble together. Having come to the Faith of Christ, he followed St. Peter to Rome. He later traveled to Egypt, preaching the Gospel and establishing the first church there in Alexandria. The idolators, unable to bear his preaching, seized him, bound him with ropes, and dragged him through the streets until he gave up his soul.
His Gospel was written ten years after the Ascension of Christ. It is likened to a lion because his Gospel begins with the phrase: “A voice of one crying in the wilderness.” (Mk. 1:3).
Mark is preeminently the Gospel of service with the Lord Jesus Christ set forth as the Servant obedient unto death. The Servant character of the Lord Jesus is seen throughout the book and is clearly stated in (Mk. 10:45). A particular emphasis is given to the miracles which Christ performed. Christ is seen primarily as a Worker rather than a Teacher.
St. Mark wrote primarily for the Gentiles who were not familiar with the Old Testament prophecies. Therefore, he uses only a few Old Testament references. His Gospel is known for its brevity and its vividness.
In the icon, he is depicted with a lion next to him, one of the living creatures mentioned by Ezekiel (1:10), and a symbol of Christ’s royal office, as St. Irenaeus of Lyons writes. St. Mark’s expression displays wonderful attention to the voice of the Holy Spirit in his heart.
St. Mark the Apostle -
The First Gospel Writer
He was the nephew of St. Barnabas the apostle and came to the Faith of Christ through St. Peter the Apostle and followed him to Rome. He was also one of the seventy disciples.
He traveled to Egypt, preached the Gospel there and was the first to establish a Church in Alexandria, where he also wrote his Gospel for both Jews and Gentiles. He ordained the first Alexandrian bishop with other clergy. He also founded the first catechetical school.
He codified the rituals of the Divine Liturgy known as the St. Cyril Liturgy upon which several other liturgies were based. This Liturgy is prescribed in the Coptic Church to this day.
According to tradition, the pagans attacked him on the Feast of Pascha while he celebrated the liturgy. He was martyred by being dragged through the streets of Alexandria.
His house was transformed into a Church whereby the services and gatherings were held at that Upper Room in Zion. He was surnamed John in the book of Acts and in his Gospel was believed to be the young man who fled naked at Christ’s betrayal in Gesthemane.
One of the hymns composed for St. Mark, states: “As a true initiate of the Word and His gladsome tidings, you get down His soul-saving words and sealed your Gospel with martyrdom for the sake of the Truth, O Mark, resplendent glory of Alexandria.”
In this icon, he is holding a Gospel book while Alexandria is in the background. On the right is a lion, who according to tradition, represents the one that was to attack him and his father but through his faith was able to overcome it.
St. Matthew -
St. Matthew the Evangelist has been represented by the figure of a man (ref. Ez. 1:10 & Rev. 4:7) because his Gospel begins with the geneology of Christ. His icon is to be found in one of the four circles connected to the arches of the dome of the Church.
St. Matthew’s Gospel vividly asserts that Jesus Christ is the real Messiah, foretold by the prophets, and that there is no other (Mt. 11:3). The Evangelist presents the Savior’s life, teachings and deeds using three divisions which represent the three aspects of the Messiah’s service: as Prophet and Law-Giver (ch. 5-7), as Lord over the world both visible and invisible (ch. 8-25), and finally as High-Priest offered as Sacrifice for the sins of all mankind (ch. 26-27)
There is a distinct correlation between Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, and the Gospel of Matthew, the first book of the New Testament. Genesis opens with the generations of the heavens, earth and man while Matthew opens with the generations of the Incarnate God through Whom there will be new heavens and a new earth. Sin appears at the outset in Genesis, and its course is traced onward. Salvation is presented at the outset in Matthew, and its marvels are recounted. While in Genesis, a nation is founded, in Matthew, a Church is predicted and the foundations for it are laid.
His Gospel is the bridge between Judaism and Christianity, whereby, he presents Christ as the Mediator of the New Covenant.
In the icon, the likeness of a man, one of the symbolic creatures mentioned in Ezekiel 1:10, a symbol, according to St. Ireneus, of our Savior’s Incarnation, is portrayed next to St. Matthew. St. Matthew’s expression displays wonderful attention to the voice of the Holy Spirit in his heart.
St. Paul the Apostle -
Apostle to the Gentiles
St. Paul was born a Hebrew of the tribe of Benjamin in Tarsus, Asia Minor. A tentmaker by trade, his name was Saul, he studied under Gamaliel. As a Pharisee, he was a persecutor of Christians. In fact, he was an approving spectator to the stoning of St. Stephen, one of the seven deacons (Acts 7:58-8:1).
His conversion to Christ took place while he was on his way to Damascus with the intention of further persecuting Christians (Acts 9:1-18). There in Damascus, Ananias baptized him, and he spent three years in prayer and solitude in Arabia. Then, he traveled to Jerusalem where he met St. Peter and the rest of the disciples.
He made three extensive missionary journeys which effectively began the spread of Christianity throughout the world which are detailed in the book of Acts. He established the first Gentile churches throughout Asia Minor and in Europe. He was beheaded in Rome during the reign of Nero on the same day as St. Peter. Although not one of the original Twelve Apostles, he became the greatest apostolic missionary of all time and thus was given the title “Apostle”.
A hymn written in his honor: “Reposed is the chosen vessel, the teacher of the nations, the universal preacher, the eyewitness of the heights of heaven and the beauties of Paradise, an object of amazement to both angels and men, the great struggler and athlete, whoe bore on his body the wounds of his Lord.”
In the icon, he holds a sword signifying the means wherewith he was martyred as well as a reference to his words: “And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God” (Eph. 6:17). He also carries the scrolls, symbolizing his fourteen epistles. In the background is the Parthenon in Athens testifying to his overriding missionary work to the Gentiles.
St. Peter & St. Paul -
The Two Great Pillars of the Church
The Acts of the Apostles paints a graphic picture of the lives of these bulwarks of the Faith. The first eight chapters focus on St. Peter and of Jerusalem, the center of the Church. The next chapters focus on St. Paul and the city of Antioch, which became a prominent place. Both saints offer their testimony to Christ in the fulness of obedience to the Holy Spirit speaking through them for the love and glory of Christ.
St. Peter was the spokesman of the Apostles and a witness of Christ’s Divinity. He delivered the first sermon on Pentecost resulting in thousands embracing the Faith in Christ. From Jerusalem, he preached in Antioch (Gal. 2:11) and became its first bishop, then to Cappadocia, Galatia, Pontus and finally Rome.
St. Paul was the greatest missionary of the earliest Church. Following his conversion from a persecutor to an apostle, he spent his years traveling throughout the then-known world, establishing Churches and preaching the Gospel. To these, he wrote numerous letters which form a significant part of the New Testament canonical writings. He was imprisoned, shipwrecked, beaten and starved, and suffered greatly for His Master.
The two great pillars of the Church are said to have been martyred on the same day of the same year under the reign of Nero in Rome. According to Eusebius, Tertullian and Origen, St. Peter was crucified head downwards at his request while St. Paul, being a Roman citizen, was beheaded.
“Let us all laud the first heralds of the Word: Peter, the all-honored apostle among the twelve; and Paul, the fiery preacher of Christ’s dispensation; for crowned with wreaths of glory, they intercede in our behalf” (a hymn dedicated on their behalf).
“O Leaders of the Apostles and Teachers of the universe, pray to the Master of all to grant peace to the world and abundant mercy to our souls” (a hymn dedicated on their behalf).
In the icon, St. Peter holds the “keys of the kingdom” in his hand in accordance to Christ’s words to him in response to his confession of Him (Mt. 1616-19). For this, Christ gave the Church (through Peter) the keys of the kingdom of heaven that She should have authority with God to save men. Wherefore, it was not one man, but rather the One Katholik Church, that received these “keys” and the right “to bind and loosen” since our Lord gave this authority to all the disciples (the Church) – (Jn. 20:22-23 & Mt. 18:18). St. Paul is carrying his epistles. Both are depicted as such for St. Peter is the “Rock of Faith” while St. Paul is te “Pride of the Universe.”
St. Abraam -
Bishop of Fayoum
He was born as Boulos (Paul) in a village called Delga in the province of Dairout, Egypt. He was ordained deacon at a young age of 15. He was known to love the monastery of the Theotokos, aka “Al-Meharaq” at Assiut. There, he became a novice then later a monk at the age of 19.
He had three distinct qualities: kindness, self-control, and relentless love for the poor. He was chosen to be an assistant to Bishop Jacob of Menya, who later ordained him a priest before sending him back to the monastery.
Several years later, he was ordained Abraam, bishop of Fayoum after the repose of its late bishop. His diocese enjoyed peace and tranquility, both rich and poor alike because of his great love and zeal for the flock of Christ.
St. Abraam was frequently being complained about before Cyril the Vth, Patriarch of Alexandria, for his excessive generosity to the poor. Wanting to inquire about this matter, the Pope summoned the saint to his papal office. Beholding the grace of God upon the face of St. Abraam, the pope was not able to rebuke him on any financial matter.
He spent 33 years of his life as a bishop and reposed at the age of 85. He was loved by Moslems and Christians alike because of his simplicity and kindness. He is mentioned in the Synaxis of the saints in the Divine Liturgy.
In this icon, St. Abraam, the bishop of Fayoum, is portrayed holding a cross in one hand and a gospel in the other.
St. Athanasius -
St. Athanasius the Great, born in Alexandria, studied at the great Catechetical School of Alexandria where he received excellent training in Greek and, especially, the Sacred Scriptures. At the youthful age of twenty, he was ordained deacon and became secretary to Alexander, Archbishop of Alexandria, whom he accompanied to Nicea where he boldly rose up against the impiety of the Arians. After Alexander died in AD 328, not long after the Council, St. Athanasius succeeded him as Archbishop.
But St. Athanasius suffered persecution throughout his administration and spent more than fifteen of his 47 years as Archbishop in exile and banishment. While in exile, he visited the monasteries in the desert and would often visit St. Anthony for advice, moral and spiritual support, revering him as a spiritual father.
Among his great works were Against the Heathen, On the Incarnation of the Word and his Paschal Letters. Another of his celebrated writings was The Life of St. Anthony, in which St. Athanasius portrays him as a “worthy model of asceticism.”
A hymn dedicated to him, declares: “You were Orthodoxy’s steadfast pillar, holding up the Church with godly dogmas, O great Hierarch, for you preached unto all that God the Son is One Essence with God the Father; thus you shamed Arius. Righteous Father, Athanasius, entreat Christ God that His mercy be granted to us.”
In the icon, he is dressed in the full vestments of a bishop. In his hand, he holds a scroll bearing: “He took what is ours and gave us what is His)…”
St. Athanasius the Apostolic -
At the Council of Nicea
Tribute is made to the hierarchies and theologians, many of whom bore on their bodies the marks and scars of persecution, who made their way to the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea to deliberate matters that greatly affected the Orthodox Christian Faith. It is to them that we owe the formation of the first part of the Nicene Creed, with its precise definition of the Person of Jesus Christ, God and Man.
These holy fathers assembled to refute the heresiarch Arius, the protopresbyter of the Church of Alexandria, who blasphemed against the Son that He is not God but a mere creature. Therefore, these shepherds and teachers of the Church, with one voice, declared the Son and the Word in One essence with the Father.
One of the hymns composed for St. Athanasius on this occasion states: “You were Orthodoxy’s steadfast pillar, holding up the Church with Godly dogmas, O great hierarch, for you preached unto all that God the Son is of One Essence in very truth with God the Father; thus you shamed Arius. Righteous Father Athanasius, entreat Christ God that His mercy may be granted unto us.”
He was appointed deacon by St. Alexander, Patriarch of Alexandria, and accompanied him at this Council. As a result of his vehement refutation against Arianism, he was persecuted and exiled five times after his appointment to the Patriarchate.
He is depicted as a hierarch as he takes center stage amongst the 318 gathered at this Council while trampling upon Arius, who is symbolized as a devil.
St. Basil the Great -
Archbishop of Casaerea
He was born, one of ten, into a wealthy Christian family in Cappadocia, among whom included St. Macrina, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Peter of Sebastia and St. Naucratius.
He received a secular education, during which he met St. Gregory the Theologian, who became his inseparable friend. Through the good influence of his sister and after visiting various monasteries (including Egypt), he formed the first monastery in Asia Minor, having lived a strict ascetic life himself for some time. He wrote two Rules: “Long” and “Short.”
After becoming bishop of Ceasarea, he established hospitals, cared for the poor and provided homes for the strangers and travelers. He was one of the most eloquent orator and doctor of the Church and is credited with the Divine Liturgy, which bears his name.
He opposed the Arian heresy and classified the Trinitarian doctrine and the Incarnation. His untimely death was warranted from his austerities, hard work and a painful disease.
One of the hymns composed on his behalf, states: “O chosen all-radiant beacon of the whole world, most wise teacher of the Church of Christ, first to record the rules of monasticism, O great Basil, fervent and faithful servant of the All-Holy Trinity, pray to the Lord for us who praise you in faith, and who cry out to you with compunction: ‘Rejoice, O great Basil, beacon of the whole world.'”
In this icon, he is robed in his episcopal vestment. In his left hand is the Gospel that he expounded eloquently and in his right is a cross to give the blessing.
St. Cyril of Alexandria -
Pillar of the Faith
St. Cyril of Alexandria, bishop and theologian, was born in Alexandria and received a classical and theological education there. Upon the death of his uncle, Theophilus, in AD 412, St. Cyril was raised to the See of Alexandria and eventually presided over the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus, where he and the other Fathers refuted the heretic, Nestorius, then Patriarch of Constantinople. He defended the doctrine that Christ was truly God and Man, united as one Person. He insisted that the Virgin is the Mother of God and dubbed her the “Theotokos,” or the “God-bearer.” For these teachings, he was later imprisoned by some of the supporters of Nestorius.
Because of his long, hard struggle with heretics and his forceful writings about doctrine, he was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church. Throughout his life, he made it a rule never to advance a doctrine that he had not learned from the ancient Fathers. Having thus triumphed over heresy by his intrepidity and courage, St. Cyril spent the rest of his life maintaining the faith of the Church and laboring for his See for the last 32 years of his life.
Tradition holds that he composed this hymn to the Virgin: “Rejoice, O Virgin, Theotokos, Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, for you have borne the Savior of our souls.” Among his other works are commentaries on the Gospels of St. John and St. Luke, the Pentateuch, Isaiah and the Minor Prophets.
Also according to Tradition, St. Cyril translated into the Coptic language a liturgy that now bears his name from a Greek original that had been attributed to St. Mark the Apostle.
In this icon, he is dressed in the vestments of a bishop and stands resting his hands upon a pillar – symbolic of his status as “a Pillar of the Faith.”
St. Dioscorus -
Archbishop of Alexandria
In AD 451, Emperor Marcianus summoned St. Dioscorus and the four other Ecumenical Patriarchs to attend a Council in Chalcedon. There, St. Dioscorus attempted to present the Christology of the Church of Alexandria, the faith in “the One Incarnate Nature of the Divine Logos,” as St. Cyril of Alexandria had defined it. St. Cyril had explained that after the Incarnation of the Word, we can no longer speak of two natures, but only one.
Various Church historians on either side of this issue have commented that two main heresies prevalent at the time prevented the Council from reaching a common perspective while defending Orthodoxy. The first was Nestorius’ heresy which defined “two natures” in Christ that act independently from each other – an error Dioscorus hoped to prevent by insisting on the “one nature” that St. Cyril had insisted on. The other was Eutyches’ heresy which, while proclaiming “one nature” after the unity of the Logos and his flesh, also maintained that Christ’s Human nature had dissolved into His Divine nature – an error those at Chalcedon tried to defend against by attacking the use of the term “one nature.”
Sadly, however, those who attended the Council did not reach an agreement on the use of one another’s terminology and in the midst of other political problems, the parties chose instead to excommunicate one another. Because he could not agree with the Council’s decision, St. Dioscorus was banished to the island of Gangra.
In the icon, St. Dioscorus is dressed in the full vestments of a bishop. As a teacher of the Church, he holds in his left hand a scroll, while carrying a cross in his right hand.
St. Gregory the Theologian -
Bishop of Constantinople
He was born of pious parents in Cappadocia. He studied abroad, and in Athens, he met St. Basil, who became his intimate friend. After their studies together, they became fellow ascetics in the same monastery.
He was unwillingly ordained priest by his father, St. Gregory bishop of Nazianzus and later a bishop, in his stead, after the latter’s repose.
He is also considered the champion of Orthodoxy against the Arians. He was present at the Second Ecumenical Council which condemned Macedonius, the enemy of the Holy Spirit.
His profound theological writings, great orations, poems, and letters have earned him the title “Theologian.” He is particularly famed for the depth of his sermons on the Trinity. He also wrote an oration “On the Great Athanasius” and a funeral oration for St. Basil the Great.
One of the hymns composed on his behalf, states: “With your theologian’s speech, you destroyed the entangled webs of vain philosophers, while beautifying the whole Church with the robe of Orthodoxy woven in Heaven; and the Church, clothed in it, cries with us, your children: ‘O wise Gregory most glorious, rejoice, O Father, great theological mind.'”
In this icon, he is dressed in the full vestments of a bishop.
St. John Chrysostom -
Archbishop of Constantinople
St. John Chrysostom was born of pious Christian parents, Secundus and Anthusa, in Antioch, Syria. After his mother was widowed at the age of twenty, she devoted herself to bringing him and his sister up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
After a secular education, he went to the desert to pursue the ascetic life and, especially, the study of the Scriptures. But his extreme asceticism undermined his health and compelled him to return to the city, where he was ordained a deacon and received the popular title, “golden-mouth” because of his great eloquence and profound depth as a preacher. In 398, against his wishes, he was chosen to succeed St. Nectarius as Patriarch of Constantinople and began at once to reform the Church there.
However, the Empress Eudoxia resented his criticism of her vanity, her lack of charity and her immodest and extravagant dress. In response to his criticism, she ordered him deposed and exiled.
A liturgy is attributed to him. And he wrote more works than any other Church Father, including many commentaries (i.e., on Genesis, the Gospels of Matthew and John, Acts, and all the Epistles of St. Paul). He also wrote extensive treatises, among which was On the Priesthood.
His relics were translated to Constantinople thirty years after his repose while in exile in Armenia. A hymn dedicated to him declares: “From the heavens you have received Divine Grace, and by your lips, you teach all to worship the one God in Trinity, O John Chrysostom, all-blessed righteous one. Rightly do we acclaim you, for you are a teacher revealing divine things.”
In the icon, he is dressed in the full vestments of a bishop. As a teacher of the Church, he holds in his left hand the Gospel.
St. Macrina -
The Teacher & Monastic
She was born in Cappadocia; the eldest of ten children who was engaged to a young lawyer but after his sudden death, she refused all suitors and devoted herself to the spiritual life.
She was a disciple of St. Gregory the wonder-worker and was a woman of outstanding piety. After helping to educate her siblings, she retired with her widowed mother and other women to a communal life that she founded.
She alluded her brothers SS. Basil the Great and Gregory bishop of Nyssa to leave their worldly service and devote their lives to God. At her repose, nothing was found to cover her body when it was carried to the grave but her old hood and coarse veil.
On her deathbed, St. Gregory of Nyssa recorded her prayer in her biography: “O God, Eternal, to Whom I have been attached from my mother’s womb, Whom my soul has loved with all its strength, to Whom I have dedicated both my flesh and my soul from my youth up until now – do Thou give me an angel of light to conduct me to the place of refreshment, where is the water of rest, in the bosom of the holy Fathers.”
A hymn dedicated on her behalf, says: “Since the light of righteousness shone brightly in you, you were an example of the life of piety for all, teaching the virtues to them that cry: ‘Rejoice, Macrina, the boast of virginity.'”
In this icon, St. Macrina is seated as the elder and the great teacher amongst her brothers: SS. Basil the Great, Gregory bishop of Nyssa, and Peter bishop of Sebastia.